Archives for April 2014

Literary or Spoken?

A Haaretz story by Yarden Skop raises one of those eternal questions, in this case with reference to the teaching of Arabic in Israel:

For years the education system has been debating over what to emphasize in the study of Arabic − whether literary Arabic, which would give students the skills to read, write and translate, or spoken Arabic, which would allow them to hold a simple conversation.

An Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities committee found that “there are no clear goals for the teaching of Arabic in the Hebrew education system. Is the goal to create a connection with Arabs in Israel by teaching conversational skills? To provide direct access to what is happening in the Middle East (by imparting skills in understanding media in Arabic)? Opening a window onto the religion and culture of Islam? The panel believes that the setting of goals is important because this will set the objectives of study in each of the skills of the language.”

The committee noted in the introduction to its report that “most graduates of the Hebrew education system do not understand Arabic and do not see Arabic literature as a source of inspiration for thought and creativity.”

The committee concluded that the goal of teaching Arabic ought to be to allow access to the Middle East and Islam by teaching students how to understand texts, and that the study of Arabic literature should be the overriding goal.

Their decision is, of course, controversial (“there are those who believe too much emphasis is placed on literary Arabic and students are frustrated that after years of study they cannot hold a conversation”), and it’s one of those problems that inherently resists a single answer. My own relation to languages has been largely determined by circumstance; I learned spoken Spanish very well because I was living in Argentina, whereas my spoken Russian is lousy because I never get a chance to practice it. But being the bookish sort, I’m happy with my reading knowledge. (Thanks, Kobi!)

Minging and Onkus.

An e-mail (thanks, Eric!) has informed me of the BBC series “Keep your English up to date,” pointing in particular to this post on the expressive word minging, originally ‘smelly, stinking’ and now more generally ‘disgusting; ugly, unattractive.’ I was familiar with the word, but pleased to hear it discussed by John Ayto (there’s an audio file accompanying the text), because I’ve got several of his books on words (Dictionary of Word Origins, A Diner’s Dictionary: Food and Drink From A to Z, and Oxford Dictionary of English Idioms) and it was fun to hear his voice.

But what led me to post was this sentence: “A select list of adjectives we’ve applied over the past hundred years to people or things we find disgusting would include ‘scroungy’, ‘skanky’, ‘manky’, ‘icky’, ‘grotty’, ‘grungy’, ‘poxy’, ‘scuzzy’, ‘onkus’ (that’s Australian), ‘yucky’, ‘snotty’, ‘septic’, ‘gross’… I could go on.” Onkus?? Sure enough, it’s in my Australian Oxford Paperback Dictionary (1 disagreeable, distasteful. 2 not functioning properly, out of order.), the Cassell Dictionary of Slang (s.v. oncus: it can apparently be spelled several ways), and the OED, which adds an interesting bifurcation:

1. N.Z. Good; pleasant.
Quot. 1944 [A. F. St. Bruno Desert Daze 55 Now Auld Jock and Bluey, having successfully partnered a crown-and-anchor board in their Naafi, and having ‘done up’ the feloose A.W.L. in Cairo Y.M.C.A.’s, had arrived back at Maadi decidedly ‘onkus’.] is ambiguous and may have either a good or a bad connotation (cf. sense 2).
2. Austral. Unpleasant or disagreeable. Of food or drink: inferior, of poor quality. Now rare.

The last two citations for the second sense are:

1962 D. McLean World Turned Upside Down 121 All this yabber about Danny is onkus.
1999 D. Seal Lingo 61 Onkus means disagreeable or unpleasant and was used in civilian life between the wars..only to stagger on well into the 1960s, though it is rarely heard today.

Anybody familiar with this pungent word?

Varia III.

Some interesting stuff I’ve run across:

1) The Un-X-able Y-ness of Z-ing (Q): A List with Notes: Sean Cotter reports on a translated title that “like a spot of dye, dropped into the flow of culture and altered the hue of English as it diffused downstream.” I had not realized that Milan Kundera didn’t want to use “the unbearable lightness of being” as the title of the English translation of his Nesnesitelná lehkost bytí; he told Michael Heim, the translator, that “for you Americans the title will be a bit hard-going.” Heim said, “We’re not children. If The Unbearable Lightness of Being is the title, so be it.” And a meme was born.

2 De Vulgari Eloquentia: Not Dante, but a board game based on Dante (Suggested Ages: 14 and up; Playing Time: 120 minutes):

Italy, late Middle Ages. The fabric merchants need to write down their contracts in a language that everyone can understand and the literates are looking for an alternative to the elite of the traditional Latin language. So, the Volgare, the language spoken by the common people, taken from the dialects spoken in the various Italian regions, starts to gain relevance. … The players will have to do their part in the creation of this new language! But who will provide them the proper knowledge to understand the manuscripts in the different dialects? Who will succeed to uncover the secrets of the books inside the Papal Library? Who will embrace the religious life and who will remain a merchant? Some of the players can become a famous banker, someone else can climb the church’s hierarchy to be the next Pope! But in the end, who will be the most appreciated and respected for his status and his culture?

3) The Space between Languages is a talk by Herta Müller, a writer born to a German-speaking family in the Banat region of Romania who “learnt Romanian quite late in life, when I left my small village for the city at the age of fifteen to go to high school.” The discussion of her relationship to that language is interesting (“There is not a single Romanian sentence in any of my books. But Romanian is always with me when I write because it has grown into my way of seeing the world”), but the main reason I’m bringing it here is to correct an irritating error. She writes:

A swallow suddenly appeared in a different light in Romanian, where it is called rindunica, “sitting-in-a-row”. The bird’s name suggests how swallows perch on a wire, close together in a row. I used to see them in my village every summer, before I knew the Romanian word. I was amazed that a swallow could have such a lovely name. I became more and more aware that the Romanian language had words that were more sensuous, more in tune with my perception, than my mother tongue.

No. The Romanian word rândunea or rândunica ‘swallow’ is not from rând ‘file, row,’ it is from hirundinella, a diminutive of Latin hirundo. I hate to burst such a poetic, sensuous balloon, but there it is.

4) The ever-readable Gasan Guseinov has a brief post saying that all those who use the blatantly foreign бабуин for ‘baboon’ instead of the good Russian word павиан (which, as of course Guseinov knows perfectly well, is borrowed from German Pavian, which ultimately goes back to the same source, French babouin, as бабуин) should be made to repeat the palindrome А НИ У БАБУИНА НИ У БАБУИНА (something like ‘and neither at the baboon nor at the baboon’). I note that Wikipedia has separate articles for бабуин and павиан. Can my Russian-speaking readers tell me whether these two words are distinguished in ordinary use, and which of them is commoner?


I seem never to have mentioned the Nigerian anti-Western group Boko Haram here, and that’s a good thing, because if I had I would have spread the usual story that Hausa boko is from English book, and that turns out to be mistaken, according to “The Etymology of Hausa boko” (pdf) by Paul Newman, according to Wikipedia “the world’s leading authority on the Hausa language of Nigeria and on the Chadic language family.” Newman points out that:
1) If English book had been the source, it would have been adopted in Hausa as something like [búukùu] (he gives examples of such words).
2) The word boko “has a related morphological form marked by reduplication, short final vowels, and a set low-low-high-low tone pattern, namely bòokò-bóokò ‘deceptive, fraudulent’ … This pattern is found in Hausa with various other words… This reduplicated construction is unproductive and limited to a small set of words, many of which are now obsolete, thereby indicating that boko must be an old Hausa word with considerable ancestry in the language and not a recent loanword.”
3) It occurs with the word biri ‘monkey’ “as part of a fixed compound biri-boko (lit. monkey-fraud). … That biri-boko is found in Bargery’s dictionary… is a good indication that the compound is of considerable age in the language and hardly a recent creation…”
4) The order of definitions in old dictionaries suggests the original sense was ‘fraud.’
5) “It is perhaps worth pointing out that boko in the sense of something western or secular tended not to be used as an independent noun, like English book (as is now often done), but was almost always used as a modifier.”
6) Finally, “it would have been curious indeed for Hausa to have borrowed the English word book (in the form boko) and have it come to represent despised Western education. In the first place Hausa has long had its own word for book (littafi), which was borrowed at a very much earlier period from Arabic. This word was already well established and fully integrated in the language at a time considerably prior to the British takeover of northern Nigeria and the opening of colonial government schools in Kano at the beginning of the 20th century.”

His conclusion: “Hausa boko does not mean ‘book’ and it is not derived etymologically from the English word book. The phonetic and orthographic similarity between the two is purely coincidental. They are what the French call ‘faux amis’ (‘false friends’).” I was particularly impressed with this frank acceptance of responsibility for the error:

This is not a matter of an occasional reporter or amateur linguist going astray. This is a systematic error that we professional Hausa specialists have perpetuated over the years and thus we deserve real blame for having provided other scholars and the general public with misleading information.

(Thanks for the link, Paul!)

The Language of Ingalric.

Back in 2007 I posted about Justin Rye’s brilliant discussion of proposals for spelling reform, adding that I was doing so thanks to a comment by David Marjanović; now, once again thanks to a comment by David Marjanović (in this thread), I’m posting about Rye’s discussion of “What would English be like if 1066 hadn’t happened?” It’s a lot of fun (except for the inhabitants of London, who get nuked in 1983), and I recommend it to anyone who enjoys playing with sound changes and dialects.


I’ve gotten curious about the first published version of War and Peace, which was titled «Тысяча восемьсот пятый год» [1805] and published in the journal «Русский вестник» in 1865-66; it corresponded to Part I of the final version. You’d think all those nineteenth-century journals would have been scanned by now, but the useful links page at XIX век shows only a few issues for those years, none of which have installments of the Tolstoy novel. You’d also think someone would have put the first published version of the Greatest Novel of All Time online somewhere, but if they have, I can’t find it. It’s not urgent, since I won’t be getting to 1865 in my reading for months, but does anybody happen to know if it’s available?

Update. This (pdf) appears to be it; thanks, Erik!


As mentioned in the Addendum to this post, I’m reading Schiller’s play Don Carlos in Michael Dostoevsky’s translation, and I came across a reference to “Великий комтур калатравский”: the great komtur of Calatrava.” Komtur looked so little like a Russian word I suspected it of being a typo, but when I checked the German original I found “Der Großkomtur des Ordens/ von Calatrava,” so it was a borrowing of the German word, which I looked up in my HarperCollins German Unabridged Dictionary, where it was defined as “commander (of a knightly order).” Googling, I found there was a Wikipedia article for it, which says it’s derived from Latin commendator and “was a rank within military orders, especially the Teutonic Knights. In the State of the Teutonic Order, the Komtur was the commander of a basic administrative division called Kommende (also Komturei).” (The German article has more detail, as well as a photo of George V of Hanover wearing his Komturkreuz des Maria-Theresia-Ordens.)

Once again I discover an obscure lexical field, this one consisting of words known only to aficionados of knightly history; an interesting question is to what extent such words can be considered part of the vocabulary of English. On the negative side, komtur isn’t in any English dictionaries I can find; the OED doesn’t mention it anywhere, let alone have an entry for it. On the positive side, it occurs unitalicized in English books in sentences like “Because of his obsession, the Komtur became seduced by a hunger for that power and what it could afford him” and “Kierkegaard fails to distinguish the Don Juan opera from Mozart’s other work and seems to make light of the Komtur and consequently of the moral formula that demands Don Juan’s punishment.” If it is an English word, it’s certainly about as peripheral a word as one could find. (It’s even more peripheral in Russian, where the Национальный корпус русского языка finds only a few occurrences.)

What Is a Clyse?

From the English Language & Usage Stack Exchange (“a question and answer site for linguists, etymologists, and serious English language enthusiasts”), the intriguing question “What is a clyse?“:

I’ve been reading about the recent flooding in Somerset, and came across this:-

Floodwater is removed from many of the moors of the Somerset Levels by pumping stations […]. Consideration was given to replacing Dunball clyse with a pumping station in 2002…

This word doesn’t appear in any online dictionary I can find[…]

It was well answered by Janus Bahs Jacquet:

According to the OED definition, it is a local/regional word that means the same as clow. There is only one attestation quoted, from Somerset:

1882 Spectator 6 May 595. In the Reports of the Somerset Drainage Commissioners, the sluices and locks under their jurisdiction are called ‘Clyses’.

Obviously, clow is not exactly a common word, either, but it does seem to be more common than clyse, with about thirty or forty attestations […]

So a clyse would appear to be just a regional Somerset word for a sluice, basically.

It seems that clow is a false singular, based on an earlier form clowes/clowis. This was originally a singular itself (from Old English clūse, meaning ‘enclosure’, and related to ‘close’, both from the nominalised Latin passive participle clausa ‘closed’, from the verb claudō ‘to close’), but was reinterpreted as clow + plural –es around the 15th or 16th century.

Clyse is less certain: it appears to be from French écluse (same word as the Old English cluse), or perhaps it just represents a dialectical nonce rounding of the u in the Old English, yielding regional *clȳse as a variant of clūse.

Nice work! I love those obscure regional words, and it’s nice to see people getting knowledgeable answers to such questions. (Thanks for the link, Paul!)

Free OUP Online Resources.

An Oxford University Press announcement says:

Celebrate National Library Week!
All OUP Online Resources are free April 13-19th

Libraries are a vital part of our communities- they feed our curiosity, bolster our professional knowledge, and provide a launchpad for intellectual discovery. In celebration of these cornerstone institutions, we are offering unprecedented free access to all our Online Resources* [*Excluding journals] to support our shared mission of education. […] No registration required- simply use the credentials below!
Username: libraryweek
Password: libraryweek

The free access starts on April 13th and will run through the end of the day on the 19th, running for the full duration of National Library Week. Access is available in the United States and Canada only.

The full list of resources is at the link; it includes University Press Scholarship Online, Grove Music Online, the Dictionary of National Biography, and of course the OED. Sorry about the geographical restriction, but for those of you in the US and Canada, enjoy the week!

Bewray the Repricon.

Last year I quoted (via MacDiarmid) a line attributed to T.S. Eliot, “Bewray the repricon, outstent the naze,” and added that I had no idea where he wrote it, if in fact he did. John Cowan just added a comment to that thread saying he had found via Google Books this snippet from p. 16 of James Devaney’s 1952 Poetry in Our Time: A Review of Contemporary Values:

From the beginning the young poets of modernism put cleverness first. When Spender talks of “the narcine torpesce”, or when Eliot writes the line Bewray the repricon, outstent the naze, we know that he is only striking an attitude […]

But MacDiarmid and Devaney seem to be the only people who are aware of this alleged line of alleged poetry, and now that I am reminded of it, I thought I’d give it its own post and see if any of my readership might know anything about it. I should add that bewray means ‘expose, betray,’ naze is ‘promontory, headland,’ the OED knows out-stent only as a rare Scots adjective meaning ‘outstretched,’ and it is entirely unaware of any such word as repricon.